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Lawyers disappointed by sex reforms: too little too late

Lawyers disappointed by sex reforms: too little too late

The Sex Discrimination minister applauded this week’s announcement by the federal government that would see a reform of the Sex Discrimination Act as a "good outcome". But the nation's lawyers are less impressed.

THE Sex Discrimination minister applauded this week’s announcement by the federal government that would see a reform of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as a “good outcome”. But the nation’s lawyers are less impressed.

The Government this week handed down a response to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affair’s Effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act in what will see the first stage of the Act’s long-awaited reform.

Sex Discrimination Commission, Elizabeth Broderick, said she was pleased to see the Government respond.

"It is particularly exciting news for the Australian Human Rights Commission because reform of the Sex Discrimination Act was one of the strategic objectives outlined in our plan of action to progress gender equality in Australia, which I launched after the completion of my 2008 listening tour," said Commissioner Broderick.

But the nation’s lawyer have criticised the Government for its “delayed and limited response” to the Committee report.

In 2008, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended a raft of changes to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act to make it more effective in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality in Australia.

The Law Council and the NSW Bar Association were actively involved in the inquiry process and a number of the committee’s recommendations reflected their views on proposed reforms to the legislation.

“The Sex Discrimination Act has been important in helping to eliminate some forms of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. However, it has had little impact on addressing systemic sex discrimination and has not been effective at removing all barriers to women’s equal participation and progress in the workplace, including in the legal profession,” Law Council president Glenn Ferguson said.

But Ferguson said that while some amendments would be welcomed, the proposed changes do not go far enough. He said the Law Council was disappointed that only 7 of the 43 recommendations have been fully accepted.

“The committee outlined changes which would better target systemic discrimination, such as expanding the range of people and entities who must not discriminate. It also recommended the powers of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner be increased to enable her to initiate inquiries without requiring formal complaints and to regularly report to Parliament on progress in combating discrimination.”

Ferguson said these recommendations, along with many others made to the Committee, will only be considered further when the Government consolidates anti-discrimination legislation as part of its recently announced Human Rights Framework.

“The Law Council is concerned that there is no time set for the consolidation process which could potentially take up to four years with the Human Rights Framework set to be reviewed in 2014,” Ferguson said.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Broderick said the response from the Government included immediate action that would ensure the protection from discrimination provided by the Act applied equally to men and women. Breastfeeding will be considered a separate ground for discrimination, and greater protection will be provided to students and workers from sexual harassment.

Protection from discrimination on the grounds of family responsibility to both men and women in all areas of employment will also be extended.

"This response provides a vision of reform for the future that will act as an excellent first step to providing much improved protection at the federal level, not only in the area of sex discrimination, but in relation to discrimination issues more broadly," Commissioner Broderick said.

"I’m also encouraged that a number of other Senate recommendations for reform, which are not to be implemented immediately, will be considered as part of the consolidation of Australia’s federal anti-discrimination Acts, scheduled for later this year," Commissioner Broderick said.

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